I live [for the time being] in Australia. Folks here call it “The Lucky Country”. You could probably query the title if you wanted to. In the source reference (a book of the same title by Donald Horne) the title is applied ironically, suggesting Australia has the good fortune it does not through the skill of its inhabitants, but the happenstance of rich resources. There’s certainly not much lucky to celebrate if you’re an indigenous Australian- disease, slaughter, disenfranchisement, and today largely socially marginlized with the destruction of 40,000 years of cultural history now a reality rather than a threat. Australia has its fair share of natural disasters. Last year’s Black Saturday bushfires ripped across huge portions of rural Victoria with devastating results. Over a decade of drought has crippled the livelihoods of many many farmers. Intense flooding and tropical storms are commonplace in coastal regions, while many populated areas- the eminently livable Melbourne foremost among them- discovering that they are not sustainable with current resources.
But compared to Pakistan, there’s not a lot to complain about really.
The Less Lucky Country
The country’s name means, literally, ‘Land of the Pure’ or ‘The Holy Land’, but recently you’d be forgiven for stamping it with the moniker ‘The Unlucky Country’.
Pakistan’s history has been one dotted with challenges. From its inception as a nation during the 1947 partition with India (when it was in fact two countries- West Pakistan, and East Pakistan) it’s had a violent past. Up to a million people reportedly died during the mass population movements which saw nearly 15 million people uprooted and despatched to ethnic homelands in the north of the Subcontinent. In 1971, between 300,000 and 3 million more died in the civil uprising that saw Bangladesh birthed from East Pakistan.
Decades of political instability saw Pakistan as an uneasy client state of the US during the Cold War, where the seeds of today’s Global War on Terror (GWOT… what a great acronym) were sown. (For an absolutely unmissable analysis of the nexus between Bin Laden, the Pakistani intelligence service ISI, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the CIA, read Ghost Wars by reporter Steve Coll). Coups and assassinations have abounded. For a while the nation was suspended from the Commonwealth due to accusations of political repression.
Today the simmering tension between the central government and the fiercely autonomous north-western frontier has given rise to a fluctuating cycle of low-level insurgency-type violence and large-scale military manouevres. Last year, an offensive in the Swat and surrounding valleys by the Pakistani army, in an effort to shake loose insurgent strongholds, displaced over 2.5 million people in a series of rapid surges that were some of the largest, fastest population movements since the Second World War. The civil war continues, where attacks on convoys and government targets are counterbalanced by army raids and airstrikes by US drones. The shady relationship between Islamo-Fascist extremists and the ISI continues to lurk.
In October 2005, a magnitude 7.6 earthquake shook northern Pakistan, killing 80,000 people, injuring over 100,000 and hundreds of thousands- if not millions- affected- placing it by any standards as one of the largest natural disasters in what has been a half-decade of massive events (South Asian Tsunami, Cyclone Nargis, Sichuan Earthquake and Haiti Earthquake).
And now, we have the floods.
2010 Monsoon Floods
Before I go any further, I want to make something very clear- and not just because article 10 of the Red Cross and NGO Code of Conduct stipulates that beneficiaries of assistance are treated not as helpless victims, but survivors with dignity. Pakistan is a country of intense and spectacular beauty. I myself have only travelled in the south- Karachi and Hyderabad, along the Indus River which even now is expecting a new surge of floodwaters- and I was deeply touched by the generosity of the people there. I enjoyed the bustle and the dense hum of daily life that exists in those cities crammed together, and the Pakistani colleagues with whom I’ve worked at different points over the years are lovely people. I have been wanting to visit the Karakorum Ranges- K2 particularly- for many years, and were it not quite so risky right now, have a real hankering to drive from Peshawar down the Khyber Pass as well. Someday, insh’Allah.
But these guys have had it tough recently.
It’s hard to downplay the magnitude of what’s happening out there right now. The volume of rain that fell- a result of stalled monsoonal weather systems- has resulted in flooding that in critical terms hasn’t caused the same loss of life as some other quicker disasters we’ve faced. But as of today, the Pakistani government is saying that 20 million people in the country have been affected. 20 million. That number doesn’t really mean much when you read it on paper. I know, because I’m writing it, and it leaves me cold. In fact studies have suggested that we, as humans, are not really able to connect emotionally with numbers higher than about 300- the size of a tribe or large extended family, courtesy of our old troglodytic days. But 20 million is about the population of Australia. Affected by one flood event. It’s more than one in ten Pakistanis- a country that is the 6th most populous in the world.
By contrast, the Haiti earthquake is said to have affected about 3 million people. The South Asian Tsunami, maybe 5. The war in Darfur, about 5 million as well.
In fact there are more people currently affected by the floods in Pakistan than in Cyclone Nargis, the Haiti Earthquake and the Tsunami combined.
And while the term ‘affected’ is a bit of a vague one- comparing people affected by floods with people affected by earthquakes is a bit like comparing Apples and PCs- there’s little doubt that the impacts are severe. Displacement, loss of homes, loss of assets, loss of farmland and cattle. Infrastructure is being destroyed even now that will take years to rebuild. The aftermath and implications will only really be understood when the floodwaters recede. This will take 5-6 days in northern Pakistan, and upwards of 2 weeks to even begin in the flatter lowland areas of southern Pakistan such as Sindh- where the flood waters are still rising and expected to surge. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, who also toured Port-au-Prince after January’s earthquake, has called the disaster the worst he’s ever seen, and was reportedly visibly shaken on his trip. That’s a pretty big call from a guy who really knows what he’s talking about.
What’s Going On?
Everybody loves a good yank on the old Climate Change tail. The answer may not be as simple. Not that I’m suggesting climate change is simple, I assure you.
Interestingly, climate scientists have suggested that there could be a link between the flooding, and the crushing heatwave that has been burning western Russia to a crisp these past few weeks. An uncharacteristic ‘blocking high’ is perched over central Asia, allegedly disrupting the flow of the high-altitude jetstream and pushing saturated air where it wouldn’t ordinarily be at this time (parts of northern Pakistan received a year’s worth of rain in a week).
A blocking high (explains the ex-Geographer with glee) is a very stable anticyclonic weather feature (high pressure systems, or anticyclones, are caused when cool air descends from upper reaches of the atmosphere). Ordinarily, high pressure systems form, then move on or break down as they are affected by any other number of weather patterns. When these systems remain stationary for long periods of time, they’re known as blocking highs. They’re not uncommon. Growing up in the Alps, we frequently experienced blocking highs that would sit for weeks at a time, pinning low-level cloud in the bottom of the valleys but leaving the peaks bathed in glorious sunshine (resulting in what’s known as a temperature inversion). They are associated with dry weather and extended periods of sunshine, hence turning Western Russia into a tinderbox.
Beyond that, we don’t really know. Links are being discussed to ENSO trends (the infamous El Nino/La Nina cycles) as an intermediate factor. Weather and climate form such a complex system (with healthy spurts of chaos thrown in) that it’s very hard to predict beyond the micro-level what is going on, and it’s equally difficult to attribute causality.
It’s important to acknowledge that there’s a certain level of statistical randomness in what occurs; as with any system which has chaotic or random elements in it, you’ll end up with variations on a bell-curve distribution. This event happens to sit at the extreme end of one of those curves. It’s not a smoking gun (or even a dripping faucet) in support of any climate change theory. It is, however, a predictable outcome (globally, not specifically) of alleged climate change. The effect of climate change is to stretch out the arms of that bell curve, so that events at either end of the spectrum grow more severe. While in the one direction we can’t really attribute the Pakistani floods to an obvious cause or universal trend, we can expect, if the theories on Global Warming are correct, to see more and more events like this one in coming years.
For a more technical overview of ENSO, MISO and the Pakistan floods, check out this article on the IRIN news service.
In the meantime, please remember the people of Pakistan while this crisis- already overlaid on a highly complex political scenario- continues to deepen. For those motivated to give, check out the list of NGOs on the right-hand column of this blog.